Dirty Underwear, and Other Practical Considerations in Space

Space colonies are cool: they are a sta­ple of our pop­u­lar cul­ture, our lit­er­a­ture, even our polit­i­cal sci­ence. And it seems like every­one these days wants to build one, from nation­al gov­ern­ments to inter­na­tion­al con­sor­tia to bil­lion­aires with a sav­ior com­plex. But the messy real­i­ty of actu­al­ly liv­ing in one of these places is some­thing that nev­er reach­es into the euphor­ic dream­ing of liv­ing in spin­ning rings or floaty domes with extreme­ly dif­fi­cult sup­ply chains.

Most of these ques­tions are either delayed in the case of gov­ern­ment-run out­posts — they will sim­ply be run like oth­er gov­ern­ment out­posts, with a clear hier­ar­chy and lit­tle demo­c­ra­t­ic deci­sion mak­ing — or assumed away in the case of Musk’s rather fuzzy con­cep­tion of how his Mars colony would be run. When there are actu­al ideas put to paper, by some­one who seems seri­ous about actu­al­ly cre­at­ing one of these mag­i­cal float­ing utopias, it becomes a much less excit­ing prospect.

Meet Igor Ash­bu­reyli, who has draft­ed the idea for the first “space nation.” Like many oth­er grandiose visions of space trav­el, it was a fun idea to live with so long as it remained rather vague and unspe­cif­ic — this is by design, because it allows peo­ple to read their own, indi­vid­ual visions onto the idea and thus become their pre­ferred real­i­ty. Ash­bu­reyli prob­a­bly could have kept it that way, but he made a fate­ful deci­sion: he actu­al­ly tried to draw up a gov­ern­ment. The results were, how does one say, rather mixed:

Mr. Hawkes said the con­sti­tu­tion accords too much pow­er to Dr. Ashurbeyli by declar­ing Asgar­dia a “Space Kingdom”—giving him exten­sive rights to deter­mine the com­po­si­tion of the pow­er­ful Supreme Space Coun­cil. “There’s so much mish­mash in the con­sti­tu­tion,” he said…

Dr. Ashurbeyli said he sim­ply wants to estab­lish a more struc­tured soci­ety and would serve only one five-year term. As for anoint­ing him­self king, he said Asgar­dia would be a con­sti­tu­tion­al monar­chy sim­i­lar to those in Europe.

I sup­pose he deserves cred­it for being more up-front about his ambi­tions for this soci­ety than oth­ers. But to say that the gov­er­nance sec­tion of that soci­ety was not well devel­oped is about the nicest thing one can do.

So what would an actu­al resilient soci­ety in space look like? I’ve toyed around with the idea of ful­ly auto­mat­ed gay space com­mu­nism, and I do still think that that is an effect way to visu­al­ize the dai­ly, prag­mat­ic real­i­ty of life in space.

See, dai­ly life is often sup­port­ed by invis­i­ble process­es that most peo­ple, and espe­cial­ly wealthy peo­ple, sim­ply nev­er thing about. As one pop­u­lar YouTube video showed, the amount of work that goes into mak­ing some­thing as sim­ple as a sand­wich can, on a small scale, be incred­i­bly expen­sive and time con­sum­ing if you have to do every­thing from scratch with­out the ben­e­fit of mas­sive economies of scale made pos­si­ble by fac­to­ry farm­ing.

But let’s think about some­thing no one ever talks about much: laun­dry. On the Inter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion, there is no laun­dry. There are lim­it­ed options to han­dling soiled clothes in space: on aver­age under­wear is worn 3–4 days before being set aside either for a sci­ence exper­i­ment or for incin­er­a­tion inside a dis­card­ed resup­ply ves­sel. NASA spon­sors a lot of sci­ence try­ing to fig­ure this out, every­thing rang­ing from increas­ing the odor and bac­te­r­i­al resis­tance of cloth­ing to lit­tle micro­grav­i­ty wash­ing machines (that have not yet been built six years after research began). If you are going to live, for the long term, in space, you need a way to get laun­dry deter­gent (either deliv­ery at thou­sands of dol­lars per pound, or made on-site through a com­plex indus­tri­al process), either enough water to clean the clothes (and a way to either fil­ter that water so it is potable, or a place to store it so dirty water isn’t just sprayed into the uni­verse, plus a way to resup­ply that water), and enough ener­gy to then dry the clothes with­out intro­duc­ing unsta­ble spin to the facil­i­ty.

There’s also trash to con­sid­er: the ISS gets by with incin­er­at­ing its trash and resup­ply craft; should there be a pro­lif­er­a­tion of habi­tats all dump­ing their trash into the atmos­phere, it may not be a ten­able solu­tion for­ev­er. And san­i­ta­tion — right now the ISS is cleaned with the equiv­a­lent of baby wipes and lysol; when the envi­ron­ment is less con­trolled because of a high­er pop­u­la­tion, san­i­tary issues will become far worse (and bleach costs mon­ey to fly up there).

The basics of liv­ing in deep space are hard, they are THE hard ques­tions about any sort of long term habi­ta­tion away from Low Earth Orbit, and it is rare to see those plans fleshed out in any sort of detail (NASA often gets pil­lo­ried, unfair­ly I think, for its excru­ci­at­ing atten­tion to detail — but you don’t see a pri­vate firm spend­ing down its mon­ey on fil­ter­ing deter­gent from water in micro­grav­i­ty).

Set­ting up shop in LEO, as Mr. Ash­bu­reyli sug­gests, eas­es some of these prob­lems — sup­ply lines, as with ISS, are much sim­pler, as are the sus­tain­ment ques­tions for long-term habi­ta­tion. But the ques­tion, as I always come back to with these ideas, is who would actu­al­ly want to live in a place like Asgar­dia? Ignor­ing for the moment the lit­tle eccen­tric­i­ties of a Russ­ian mil­lion­aire pro­claim­ing him­self king, and let’s think about what it would cost to sup­ply an orbital habi­tat of, say, one hun­dred peo­ple.

For the pur­pose of scale, let’s use the ISS as a base­line. At any giv­en point in time there are between four and six crew mem­bers on the ISS, depend­ing on deploy­ment and expe­di­tion sched­ules. For the sake of sim­plic­i­ty, let’s say there are five crew, on aver­age, on the ISS. Last month, SpaceX launched a com­mer­cial resup­ply mis­sion, which is an unmanned Drag­on cap­sule filled with approx­i­mate­ly 6,400 pounds of sup­plies — every­thing from food to toil­er paper to clothes to exper­i­ments to pro­pel­lant to keep the sta­tion in orbit through peri­od­ic reboosts. Since SpaceX offers a rel­a­tive­ly lost cost for these launch­es (some­thing for which the com­pa­ny earns very deserved praise), it’s a good base­line for a best-case sce­nario. Using pub­lished CRS bud­get fig­ures, the aver­age SpaceX resup­ply mis­sion costs about $182 mil­lion per launch. For resup­ply­ing five peo­ple for a cou­ple of months at a time.

If we were to scale this up to a 100 per­son habi­tat, we would need to launch 20 Drag­on cap­sules, at a cost of around $3.6 bil­lion, every 3 months. For a year, you’re look­ing at clos­er to $15 bil­lion just to keep peo­ple fed, clothed, and alive — to say noth­ing of any pro­duc­tive com­mer­cial activ­i­ty that could take place. This, of course, does not account for the ini­tial cost of get­ting into orbit to begin with — as a ref­er­ence, the ISS cost around $100 bil­lion. If we scale lin­ear­ly, that would mean an Asgar­dia 100-per­son habi­tat would cost around $2 tril­lion, which is about the entire eco­nom­ic out­put of Great Britain for a year.

This comes back to an ear­li­er point: unless they can be rel­a­tive­ly autar­kic — that is, self-suf­fi­cient — space colonies are eco­nom­i­cal­ly impos­si­ble. Asgar­dia, no mat­ter its monar­chy and tax code, sim­ply can­not exist at any appre­cia­ble scale as its own enti­ty with the cur­rent eco­nom­ics and tech­nol­o­gy of space flight. Maybe, some day, if we can cre­ate the means to mine local­ly (what NASA help­ful­ly calls in-situ resource uti­liza­tion), those eco­nom­ics change. There are efforts to learn how to do that under­way now, and even pro­vi­sion­al gov­ern­men­tal approval (with its own fun array of juris­dic­tion­al prob­lems). But it is a long way off.

Sad­ly, the dream of colonies in space sim­ply is not a real­is­tic one, not with­out decades more research and engi­neer­ing devel­op­ment. Much of the high-mind­ed dream­ing that goes into these visions is laud­able for what it rep­re­sents (an attempt to think beyond our lifes­pans), but often fall far short of cre­at­ing a roadmap toward any­thing achiev­able. Just keep­ing five peo­ple alive in space requires decades of inter­na­tion­al coop­er­a­tion and hun­dreds of bil­lions of dol­lars; any­thing beyond that scale is going to exist on a scale that is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine in any con­crete way. As a thought exper­i­ment space colonies are awe­some, but as a real­i­ty they just won’t work any time soon.

Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.